Jen Ho-Tseng

The Cubs’ Bullpen Looks to Be Gutted

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By Todd Johnson

Pedro Strop.
Carl Edwards, Jr.
Mike Montgomery.
Justin Grimm.
Justin Wilson.

Those names don’t exactly exude confidence to get the final three to nine outs of a game. After yesterday’s announcement that the Cubs did not tender a contract to reliever Hector Rondon, new pitching coach Jim Hickey’s job just tougher, a lot tougher. At over $6 million, Rondon’s contract was getting too pricey to just be a setup man. The Cubs essentially said, “Thank you for service, but no thanks for 2018.” As a result, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer now have their work cut out for themselves this offseason.

Originally, just Wade Davis and Brian Duensing had left via free agency. The Cubs now have to replace half their pen and add depth to stash at AAA Iowa, which appears to be well underway.

Since the end of last season, the Cubs have taken some flyers on some arms with minimal MLB experience. Righty Luke Farrell could relieve, he could start. He has 13 career MLB innings. Righty Cory Mazzoni has 16 career innings to go with his shiny 17.28 career ERA. Lefty Randy Rosario’s career ERA is a whopping 30.86 in just  2.1 innings. And this week, the Cubs signed 29-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez. He might be alright. He threw 16 IP in 2017 with a 2.67 ERA but also put up an unsustainable whip of 2.02. He walked 14 batters. I thought his signing was a little odd as Theo talked about adding strike throwers in his offseason press sessions. I don’t think that is what he had in mind.

After seeing those stats, I am not brimming with confidence. I am not in sheer terror either, but I am concerned. The Cubs will need to find a closer and a couple of setup men while adding depth at AAA.

Theo is going to have hit the free agent market and maybe use the Rule 5 Draft (Kohl Stewart of Minnesota is one name I like) as a cheaper option. Theo has been able to find arms in the past rather cheaply and I am sure he will again. In addition, I would not be surprised to see Theo make a trade for an arm or two rather than overpay in the free agent market or in an international free agent.

Here are some free agent names to look for to see if the Cubs are associated with or show interest in over the next month:
Brian Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Pat Neshek, Brandon Kintzler, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Fernando Rodney, Matt Albers, Tony Watson, and Jake McGee.

As for internal options…
Dillon Maples is close to being ready. While he has top flight MLB pitches, it is just a matter of controlling them. At 25, he now stands a better chance of making the 25 man roster. I always thought that Jen-Ho Tseng’s change-curve combo would play better out of the pen than as a starter. He could get that chance in 2018. While Rob Zastryzny is an option, but I don’t know if I see him as a long term option. Justin Hancock is another strong arm. He had an up and down year year for three MiLB teams in 2017, but he does throw in the upper 90s. David Garner finally made it to AAA in August but struggled in his one month there. He is going to need some seasoning at that level. One name I like is Tommy Nance. He spent all of 2017 injured. He reminds me of Brandon Webb in that he throws a “hard” ball that breaks a lot of bats. Nance would be a very longshot to make the team, but I could see him getting a shot later in the summer if all goes well with his health.

In the end, adding three to four more arms to a corps that struggled to find the plate in 2018 is a bit concerning. All last night I kept wondering if Theo would overpay for pen security or would he try to find undervalued arms somewhere. However, heading into day 2 of the Shohei Otani watch, rebuilding the pen could take a while as the Cubs do have more pressing needs at starting pitching. Once the Otani dust settles, it should be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes down.

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Fangraphs’ Top Prospect List Goes All-In on Potential

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By Todd Johnson

Last year, I quipped that Fangraphs produced the prospect list your mother warned you about. This year, Eric Longenhagen continued the tradition of creating a list different from the mainstream. The list, which came out today, contains analysis of upwards of 50 Cub prospects in detail. Although he only ranks 22, there is still plenty of information to go through and dissect. Overall, the list is a selection of young, athletic, and unproven prospects in the top 10.

Like Baseball America, Fangraphs placed shortstop Aramis Ademan at number one followed by pitchers Adbert Alzolay and Jose Albertos. While I would probably have them in inverse order as a top three, I really can’t quibble with Longenhagen’s reasoning. For the next 18 picks, though, it is all about potential. Longenhagen states:

Trades and graduations have sliced off the head of this system, but I remain fond of its “fruit on the bottom” composition. It features a wide swath of young talent at the lower levels, mostly from Latin America. The Cubs have cast a wide net in Latin America, adding a slew of good-bodied athletes with middling tools and then just kicking back to see what the player-development staff can do with them.

Pitcher Oscar de la Cruz is still held in esteem at number four and is soon followed by Brendon Little and Alex Lange, both of whom seem to have incomplete projections about whether they will be starters or relievers if, and when, they get to Chicago

The biggest shockers in the list came in the middle with the inclusion of several young 18 to 19-year-olds. Catcher Miguel Amaya is a favorite of mine and he is situated at number nine. Pitcher Alec Mills was next at ten, even though he missed most of 2017 with bone spurs. Mills was praised for his baseball command and plus changeup.

At number 11, 2017 sixth round pick pitcher Jeremiah Estrada got a lot of love from Longenhagen for his potential despite only pitching six innings of professional ball in 2017. One of my favorite young Cub prospects, outfielder Nelson Velazquez, came in at number 13 while unheralded lefty starter Brailyn Marquez surfaced at number 14 after an up-and-down year in Mesa.

The more I got through the list, the more and more the emphasis is on potential. Former top prospect Mark Zagunis wound up at number 20 while several more established Cub prospects did not make the top 22 cut like Trevor Clifton, Chesny Young, and Duane Underwood. Even the Cubs’ reigning MiLB Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng did not make it. It is not as if Fangraphs have tossed the old guard to the side of the road, they made way for more prospects with a higher upside. DJ Wilson, for example, is one young and athletic prospect I profiled just last week who made the top 10.

In the end, this list is just going to be one of many this offseason that could have a totally different view of the Cubs system from every other list. In the next two weeks, Baseball Prospectus is set to release their Top 10 Cubs list either late next week or the week of the 11th.

The more lists that come out, the greater the variance is going to be. It’s pretty evident that the era of consensus on who the Cubs top prospects are is over. Even though Ademan has gotten the top nod in both major lists so far, don’t expect him to get top billing in every one.

State of the Cubs for 2018 – Part 2: Acquiring Starting Pitching Is the #1 Priority

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By Todd Johnson

The Cubs need to take their pitching staff into the shop to get it ready for the 2018 season. It’s going to need more than a tuneup, an oil change, and a new set of white walls. In 2017, it proved to be an aging staff. Even with the addition of Jose Quintana, there are still a lot of question marks when it comes to the Cubs starting rotation for 2018 and beyond.

There should be two new faces in 2018 for the starting rotation. When you consider that you have to replace almost 400 innings, in addition to developing some back ups in AAA, that’s a lot to go and find in one offseason. I think the Cubs need to go find the best long-term assets they possibly can. Considering who the Cubs are replacing, the Cubs need number one and number two type starters.

There are three ways that the Cubs are going to get starting pitching for 2018 and beyond. They can promote from within, find a free agent or two, or make a trade. They should get one free agent and make one trade. Theo will probably not go all in on one way to acquire talent.

From Within
The number of pitchers the Cubs could cull from within for 2018 is slim. Mike Montgomery will head back to the pen, although he could make a spot start or two next year. Jen-Ho Tseng is just about ready – he only has 55 IP at AAA. Eddie Butler and Alec Mills also provide some depth in case of injury. However, Mills and Butler are currently not exactly what the Cubs are looking for in a starter. The Cubs need #1 or #2 type arms.

Duane Underwood, Trevor Clifton, Adbert Alzolay, and Zach Hedges should all be at AAA at some point in the next year. In order for any Cub farmhand to make it to Chicago, they would have to be dominant at that level. So far, only Tseng has. Spring training performance will go a long ways towards inspiring any confidence in their arms.

The second half of the year looks more promising for starting pitching help as the prospects gain experience at AAA. The Cubs also have several arms at AA who could help later this season, too. Thomas Hatch is one prospect who I hope figures it out this year and I would not look past Alex Lange, the Cubs second first round pick from 2017. Lange could move fast this year with his experience and his killer curve. A starting pitcher moving quickly is something the Cubs have not seen in the Theo era.

The Free Agent Market
When looking at the free-agent market for this winter, there’s Shohei Otani and then there’s the rest. The Cubs can only offer Otani a minor league contract for $300,00. If Otani waited for another year and a half until he turns 25, the Cubs could sign him for $200-$300 million. With the talent this kid has, the team that signs him would basically be getting a once in a generation type player. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a miracle but I’m not holding my breath.

 

That leaves the field.

Alex Cobb might be a nice back of the rotation type starter, but he’s not the number one or number two type the Cubs envision themselves getting, let alone one who will be 31 when when 2018 begins.

Here is a list of some of this offseason’s top free agents that I like and their age:
Jake Arrieta (32)
Andrew Cashner (31)
Tyler Chatwood (28)
Johnny Cueto (32) — Can opt out of the remaining four years, $84MM on his contract
Yu Darvish (31)
Nathan Eovaldi (28) — $2MM club option
Matt Moore (29) — $9MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Masahiro Tanaka (29) — Can opt out of the remaining three years, $67MM on his contract

While this list doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, there are some attractive arms but there is no sure thing at a cheap price. I would love to see Cueto or Darvish in a Cubs’ uniform. I like the idea of Chatwood but more as a reclamation project just as much as I like Cashner in the pen. I just wonder if the cost is going to be prohibitive. As a result, I think the Cubs might go with someone like someone like Alex Cobb, or Jeremy Hellickson who is not on this list. That would be for just one pitcher.

The Trade
The problem with the Cubs making a trade for a #1 type of starting pitcher is they more than likely don’t have the high end minor league prospects that other teams value. Yes, the Cubs do have some good young players, but I don’t think any amalgamation of prospects is going to bring back a number one starter. It’s going to take a major league player to get a major-league pitcher. That means Happ, Almora, Russell, or Schwarber are likely to be involved.

Phil Rogers of MLB.com listed some possible arms the Cubs could acquire this winter that fit the bill of what they are looking for in a pitcher.

But now it sure sounds like Epstein and Co. are prioritizing the starting pitchers who could be available in a trade — Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Nola and Sean Manaea, to name five — ahead of the position players who don’t provide unique skills on the roster. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are untouchable, but maybe nobody else.

I think whatever the Cubs are going to do this offseason to acquire top flight starting pitching is going to come together quickly. It is hard to put a price on proven major league starting pitching of that caliber. It is going to cost a lot of money or a lot of prospects, or even a current MLB player.

In the end…

When the year 2021 comes around. most of the Cubs position players will be in the last year of their rookie contracts. The Cubs do not have any starting pitching signed beyond that year. Whoever Theo gets this winter could be the anchors for 2021 and beyond.

The 7 Series – Iowa Cubs Produced Prospects in 2017 but Changes Are Coming

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 67-72

For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.

The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.

Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.

1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.

2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.

3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.

4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.

5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.

6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.

7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.

What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.

Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.

Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.

A New Top 21 List – A Few Movers and Shakers

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By Todd Johnson

I am thinking I had this list done about three weeks ago. I wanted to put it out almost immediately after the minor league season ended. After thinking about it, I thought I would just let it settle and edit it before I put it out. To be honest, it has changed much from when I wrote it to today. In fact, I was reconsidering re-ordering 5-9 all night.

Card made from a photo by Freek Bouw/27 Outs Baseball.com

There are really only two major changes in this list from the summer. They are the inclusion of outfielders Jonathan Sierra and Nelson Velazquez. In fact, I had Velasquez shoot all the way into the top 10. The Cubs don’t have anybody like him in the system with his home run power and production.

I still think this list is pretty volatile. After the Arizona Fall League, I will think about mixing it up a bit. But with who is going to Arizona, I think only one prospect might improve their lot on the list.

The list could change quite a bit later this off-season as trades are made and injuries are revealed. I think the biggest risers and fallers next year will be at AA Tennessee. The Smokies will have pitchers Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton, Oscar de la Cruz, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker and position players Zack Short and Eddy Martinez. Those seven will determine how the rest of the list looks because production at AA signals that the product could be productive in Chicago.

South Bend’s rotation next year will also have a huge impact on the list as recent draft picks will be unleashed without any restrictions. Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson are two pitchers who could make some waves in 2018 with some excellent performances next summer.

So, without further adieu, here is the current Top 21 list in video form.

Cubs’ MiLB 2nd Half All-Star Team Shows the Shift in the System

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By Todd Johnson

Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.

I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.

What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..

So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.

When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.

The Weekly – Getting Hot, Schedules, Awards, and a Question

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By Todd Johnson

After today, there are just two weeks left to the major-league regular season. The Cubs’ bats could not have picked a better time to wake up from their hitting with runners in scoring position slumber. Hopefully, the bullpen can hold up along with the starting pitching the rest of the way. One thing I can tell you is the next two weeks are not going to be dull. The Cubs play the Brewers and Cardinals 8 more times.

2018 Schedules
I was finally able to get a peek at next year’s schedule for South Bend and the Chicago Cubs 2018 calendar. I am thinking of doing some traveling next year and it looks like the schedules are going to cooperate.

For South Bend, they venture west of Indiana for four series. Next year, the young Cubs are going to be in Cedar Rapids and Peoria on one trip and then Kane County and the Quad Cities on a separate jaunt. I will not be able to make the Cedar Rapids series as I will be in Springfield at the state history fair. For Peoria, it’s about an hour and a half away and is a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday series. So, it looks like I will only make one or two of those games. But for the Quad Cities and Kane County portion, those series are both in July and will be day trips for me as both are just an hour and fifteen minutes away or less. I haven’t been to the Quad Cities stadium in a few years and I look forward to going. I just hope some of the Cubs top prospects are still on the team.

Looking at the big Cubs’ schedule, I got really excited to see that the Cubs will be going to Kansas City in early August. A little over 6 hours away for me, the city is also home to the Negro League Baseball Museum and a national Jazz Museum. Also, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is next door in Independence. Those are pretty much all my favorite type of things to do in life. Add in the vaunted BBQ and my wife and I are set. We are going to stay for a few days and probably catch two games. I cannot wait!

Awards
The Cubs also presented Jen-Ho Tseng and Victor Caratini with their MiLB Players of the Year Awards. This is the first time I can remember both players being in uniform  to receive them. Jen-Ho’s debut start was less than ideal and I don’t think he will get another start unless the Cubs clinch or there is an injury or rain out. He looked to be overwhelmed at the experience. I am sure he will make a few starts in spring training for the club, which will probably go much better.

Transactions
The Cubs also signed a non-drafted free agent from Oregon State named Christian Donahue. Donahue is a second baseman and outfielder who had an outstanding 2016 season but struggled in 2017 and was suspended from the team just prior to the College World Series. That would explain why he wasn’t drafted. But the Cubs may have gotten a steal as most reports of his abilities and skills have been very complementary. He’s not big at 5’7″, and he’s not going to hit for a lot of power, but he does have the ability to square up the ball and hit for a high average. As freshman, he hit .287 and as a sophomore, .339. He was named to the first team All-Pac 12 that year.

A Question Answered
I also got my question answered on MLB Pipeline this week. I asked which Cub is likely to make a top 100 list next year. Check out the response from Johnathan Mayo.

I like that Mayo thinks so highly of Albertos. He is ranked #1 on Cubs Central’s Top 21 list now and on the new one that comes out in a couple of weeks. I got a little giddy when I saw that he threw Lange in there, too.

Cubs Insider
For the first time, I did not publish the affiliate year-end posts this year. Instead, they were published over the last two weeks at Cubs Insider.

Iowa

Tennessee

Myrtle Beach

South Bend

Eugene

Mesa

I will be posting articles in a couple of weeks where I look at seven things about each affiliate from the past year and one thing to look for in 2018.

Card of the Week

Upcoming Posts This Week
2nd Half All-Star Team
The All-Injury Team
Jesus Camargo Profile

“The New Cubs Farmhand” will be published at BP Wrigleyville this Thursday.